POSSE homework: how to contribute to FOSS without coding
by Sebastian Benthall
One of the assignments for the POSSE workshop is the question of how to contribute to FOSS when you aren’t a coder.
I find this an especially interesting topic because I think there’s a broader political significance to FOSS, but those that see FOSS as merely the domain of esoteric engineers can sometimes be a little freaked out by this idea. It also involves broader theoretical questions about whether or how open source jives with participatory design.
In fact, they have compiled a list of lists of ways to contribute to FOSS without coding: this, this, this, and this are provided in the POSSE syllabus.
Turning our attention from the question in the abstract, we’re meant to think about it in the context of our particular practices.
For our humanitarian FOSS project of choice, how are we interested in contributing? I’m fairly focused in my interests on open source participation these days: I’m very interested in the problem of community metrics and especially how innovation happens and diffuses within these communities. I would like to be able to build a system for evaluating that kind of thing that can be applied broadly to many projects. Ideally, it could do things like identify talented participants across multiple projects, or suggest interventions for making projects work better.
It’s an ambitious research project, but one for which there is plenty of data to investigate from the open source communities themselves.
What about teaching a course on such a thing? I anticipate that my students are likely to be interested in design as well as positioning their own projects within the larger open source ecosystem. Some of the people who I hope will take the class have been working on FuturePress, an open source e-book reading platform. As they grow the project and build the organization around it, they will want to be working with constituent technologies and devising a business model around their work. How can a course on Open Collaboration and Peer Production support that?
These concerns touch on so many issues outside of the consideration of software engineering narrowly (including industrial organization, communication, social network theory…) that it’s daunting to try to fit it all into one syllabus. But we’ve been working on one that has a significant hands-on component as well. Really I think the most valuable skill in the FOSS world is having the chutzpah to approach a digital community, propose what you are thinking, and take the criticism or responsibility that comes with that.
What concrete contribution a student uses to channel that energy should…well, I feel like it should be up to them. But is that enough direction? Maybe I’m not thinking concretely enough for this assignment myself.
Perhaps too meta, but another way a non-coder can contribute to FOSS is by being a FOSS contributor and a non-coder. In other words, if we want the open source way (TOSW) to spread to aspects of the world beyond technology, we need translators/bridgers to those other disciplines who can integrate TOSW into them in ways non-natives to that discipline will never be able to. So just being there at all is a contribution that is awesome and unique, the same way a single FOSS hacker in a software company can change the way their programming team does things.
Also: you wrote earlier about the concept of FOSS communities as “recursive publics,” and I’d contend that non-coders make those communities more recursive publics (recursiver publics?) I love technology and engineering and etc, but the art of being introspective, culturally sensitive, looking at social dynamics, etc. is specifically cultivated by the humanities and social sciences (as in, some coders do it really well, but there are disciplines in which honing some aspect of being a recursive public is literally ALL THEY DO by definition).
I totally want to geek out with you about the recursive public thing, Seb — is this all in Kelty’s “Two Bits” book, and if so can you email-holla a good Skype time this summer so I can read the chapter in question and then we can have a geekfest?
I think the danger for your particular class (knowing you as a person, and the brief description of the class I’ve seen) will be getting too meta — trying to do this cross-discplinary bridging and pattern-finding and social-seeding without having firm roots in the FOSS world they’re trying to bridge to/from. A lot of the higher-level patterns/concepts only really make sense after you’ve got direct experience to analyze using those frameworks; otherwise, it’s meaningless textbook stuff (the same way quicksort is just fancy math until you need to actually alphabetize something).
Thanks for replying, Mel. And thanks for introducing me to the Teaching Open Source community and the POSSE initiative. I found the workshop very rewarding and look forward to contributing.
You make interesting points. I’ll definitely email you to schedule a time to talk when I’m done traveling later in June. It would be great to talk more about recursive publics and get any more thoughts on the class.